Derek Jeter and the 11 Greatest Acting Jobs in MLB History
For as long as stock-car racing has existed, its unofficial motto has been: If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'. Drivers and pit crews get caught seemingly every other week in the act of some rule-bending. It actually makes the sport more engrossing.
But it lacks a certain art. Eliminating a quarter-inch of drag may help you win, but it's not much fun to watch, and often, the car is found in violation by a NASCAR inspector behind the scenes and without much fanfare. It's boring, really.
Not so in baseball. Cheating requires a cunning mind and a gambler's nerves, and often, cheating in baseball is not technically cheating. PED users aside, baseball cheaters are usually working within the rules, but doing it in creative and sly ways. They're not cheaters, really, but actors.
Acting pervades other areas of the game, too. Managers sometimes act more upset than they are in order to fire up a squad. Players might act healthy between the chalk lines, but run to the clubhouse in agony between innings.
To keep opponents on their heels and teammates on their toes often requires the ability to mislead or perform. Here are 11 instances of players and managers getting theatrical, mischievous and/or deceptive, and going for the Oscar nominations.
1. Dick Williams, 1972 World Series
Game 3 of the 1972 World Series was baseball's answer to 'Gone with the Wind.' The whole series was a masterpiece, one of the great underrated tussles in Fall Classic history between what turned out to be two dynasties, the Oakland A's (World Series winners 1972-74) and the Cincinnati Reds (who won the next two Series). It went to seven games.
Our scene, however, is a crowded ballpark in Oakland in Game 3. The Reds hold a 1-0 lead, but have a chance to build thereupon with Joe Morgan at second base and slugging catcher Johnny Bench at the plate. It's the eighth inning of Game 3, with the teams having split the prior two contests.
The count runs full. Bench looks more dangerous in the box with each successive offering, especially given the Series he's having: three hits and an OPS over 1.000 through the first two games. Therefore, Williams heads to the mound, there to confer with reliever Rollie Fingers about their best course. He emphatically gestures toward first base. He wiggles four fingers.
The conference breaks up, and Gene Tenace, the A's catcher, takes his place behind home plate, glove outstretched, standing straight. Bench drops his bat to his shoulder; his eyes glaze over. Now, cat-like, Fingers executes what was Williams' plan all along, and throws a perfect strike down the heart of the plate. Inning over.
Williams turned in a sensational performance, and it worked to great effect. The Reds still won the game, but for a moment, the skipper outfoxed the ruthlessly baseball-smart Johnny Bench.
2. Derek Jeter, Sept. 15, 2010
This deception had not nearly the same level of consequence, but it was no less fascinating. It was a high-stakes September game between the Yankees and Rays, and Derek Jeter stepped to the plate with New York trailing 2-1 in the seventh inning. Reliever Chad Qualls threw a pitch inside, and it hit Jeter's bat for a foul ball.
Only Jeter sold it differently. Grabbing at his wrist, he made sufficient spectacle of being hit by a pitch that home plate ump Lance Barksdale got the wrong idea and actually sent him down to first base.
It was a brilliant stroke by Jeter: He even fooled his own trainer and manager into coming out to check on him. And on the sixth pitch of the next plate appearance, Curtis Granderson took Qualls out of the park to give New York the lead.
3. Chuck Knoblauch, 1991 World Series
Another World Series, another fine player put to shame by a bit of brainy baseball.
Lonnie Smith reached first base for the Braves, though, and when Terry Pendleton (who would go on to win the NL MVP for that year) lashed a double into the gap, Smith seemed sure to score.
But Chuck Knoblauch was manning second base for the Twins that night, and Knoblauch took Smith in with a classic deke.
Feigning receipt of the ball from the outfield, he scared Smith--who admittedly had stumbled between second and third base--into stopping at third. He was stranded there, and the Twins went on to win the game and the Series.
4. Lou Piniella, June 2, 2007
That day, they also had to deal with the embarrassment of their starting catcher and ace pitcher (Michael Barrett and Carlos Zambrano) fighting publicly in the dugout, then continuing the brawl in the clubhouse.
New manager Lou Piniella had been on bad teams before. He had been with teams who needed to change direction, and he knew just how to do it. If the team wanted anger, he could show them anger.
In the eighth inning of the Cubs' game against Atlanta on June 2, Angel Pagan reached second base. When a ball kicked away from the catcher, Pagan took off for third. He was called out.
No sooner had it happened, than Piniella exploded from the dugout and physically and verbally abused umpire Mark Wegner. It was a classic tack, but it worked like a charm.
The team took their cue: they brawled with the Padres two weeks later, and a week after that, began a seven-game win streak capped by a victory over the Brewers in which they fell behind 5-0 in the top of the first inning, only to storm back and win on a walk-off home run from Aramis Ramirez.
Piniella lent the Cubs his personality with one great fit, and even he admitted later:
"I was going out there whether he was safe or not."
5. Kent Hrbek, 1991 World Series
Stage-fighting is a key to good acting. Conflict in life, as in drama, must sometimes lead to confrontation, and so Kent Hrbek made himself a pro wrestling expert in addition to being the Twins first baseman. it came in especially handy in Game 2 of the 1991 World Series.
With Ron Gant on first base, the Twins threw over to hold him close. But Hrbek cleverly used Gant's momentum and leverage to remove Gant from the base and tag him out.
It was entirely illegal and should not have counted, but the call stood, over the violent protests of Gant and several other Braves. Hrbek had lifted Gant's leg clear of the bag, but made it look as though Gant would have slid off anyway.
Andre the Giant would have been proud of Hrbek that day.
6. Sammy Sosa, Congress, March 2005
There's no joy in this acting show, and there's even less honor. But for his excellent use of his own heritage in obfuscating an investigation by Congress, Sosa deserves an award.
He was able to suddenly stop speaking English, or very nearly so, right there in that hallowed hall. Amazing.
7. Mike Lowell, Hidden-Ball Guru of the Modern World
The hidden ball is one of the trickier methods of tomfoolery in the game. The rules box any would-be tricksters into a corner. It's just hard to do.
Don't tell Mike Lowell, though. He's successfully used the trick to retire baserunners at least three times in his career. As a third baseman, he can inconspicuously get the ball and stand nonchalantly near his target, seemingly waiting for his hurler to take the mound.
Then, pouncing, he's able to tag the runner and drop jaws throughout the park. It's a very complicated set of maneuvers and a delicate actor's touch is required. Lowell seems to have polished the move nicely.
8. Matt Williams, Purveyor of a Different Path
If Lowell is the out-of-work stage actor who cons you into buying the Brooklyn Bridge, Williams is the ham-handed comic who gets you to look by telling you your shoes are untied. Still, it worked nicely.
Williams, more than once, succeeded at the hidden-ball trick not through sleight of hand, but by asking runners at the hot corner if they would step off the pillow briefly so he could brush it clean. He then tagged the stunned runners out. Brilliance lies in simplicity.
9. Bobby Valentine, June 9, 1999
A true actor is a master of disguise. Valentine's disguise on this occasion was a shaky one, but he made his point.
It was late in a long game, and when Valentine disagreed with a call by home-plate umpire Randy Marsh, he got a much-needed rest. Marsh ejected Valentine.
An inning later, though, a mystery man behind a corny Groucho Marx mask appeared in the back of the Mets' dugout. The players' laughter gave him away: It was Valentine. The league fined and suspended him, but for such a fun little folly, it was worth it.
10. Clint Hurdle and Andrew McCutchen, April 9
The Rockies were in Pittsburgh during the season's second week for a four-game series. One of them went to 14 innings, and in that 14th, the Pirates were running out of personnel. Josh Rodriguez was on first base, with hot-hitting left fielder Jose Tabata at the plate.
Unfortunately, due up next was pitcher Garrett Olson. The Pirates were in no position to pinch-hit for him, but Olson was a rally-killer waiting to happen.
But Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle had something up his sleeve. As Tabata strode to the plate, the skipper ordered Andrew McCutchen (who was technically due up after Olson) to occupy the on-deck circle during Tabata's turn. McCutchen was perhaps the only player an opposing pitcher would less want to face than Tabata at that moment.
Biting the bait, Colorado manager Jim Tracy elected to pitch to Tabata. One double later, Rodriguez had scored the game-winning run.
Both teams denied that McCutchen's presence was a ploy of any kind, but one way or another, Pittsburgh coaxed the Rockies into making a poor decision, and it was the mind of Hurdle and the execution of both McCutchen and Tabata that got them the win that day.
11. Dock Ellis, June 12, 1970
Even in 1970, showing up late to work and informing your boss you were under the influence of LSD would have been a terminable offense.
So Dock Ellis can be forgiven for telling none of his teammates or coaches that he was in just that predicament when he arrived to make his June 12, 1970, start. He acted sober, claimed he had merely overslept, and made it out in time for only slightly stunted warmups.
What happened next is best known to the box scores, and certainly not to Ellis himself. He walked eight and hit a batter, but he gave up not one hit all day.
With the field swimming and the ball weightless in his hand, he threw a no-hitter, and Ellis did not admit to having been on drugs at the time until over a decade later.